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March of the Cuddly-Wuddly Documentaries

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 29, 2007

Call it the "fuzzumentary," this new documentary sub-genre in which creatures of the wild -- think the birds of "Winged Migration," or the emperors of "March of the Penguins" -- are turned into almost-human characters on the big screen. Wildlife footage is combined with an off-screen narrator to concoct a G-rated story of loyalty, survival, family togetherness and other themes designed to draw human empathy.

Forget the fact that some of these critters, particularly the polar bears and walruses in "Arctic Tale," opening Friday, might rip us apart if given half a chance. C'mon, they're so adorable! And when will the stuffed toy versions hit the shelves?

The answer is: probably soon. National Geographic Films, which produced "Arctic Tale" with Paramount Classics, already has plans for an "Arctic Tale" video game, a special week of ecological awareness (in conjunction with Starbucks), and a perfect storm of coverage within National Geographic's vast multimedia platforms, including its magazine and Web site. And there will even be a sweepstakes, according to National Geographic Entertainment's marketing head, William S. Weil, in which the winner travels to the Arctic and (presumably with some stun-gun-packing supervision) frolics with its feral residents.

Judging by the successes of 2005's "March of the Penguins" ($127 million worldwide) and 2001's "Winged Migration" (a fluttery international $32 million), this user-friendly type of documentary in which -- to steal from British filmmaker Peter Greenaway's sneery dismissal of BBC nature documentaries -- nature seems to exist purely for our delectation, seems here to stay.

Just a few miles up the road from National Geographic's downtown headquarters, in fact, Discovery Films is planning to release "Queen of the Kalahari," a quasi-anthropomorphic documentary about meerkats that is the playful prequel to Discovery Channel's "Meerkat Manor," a top-rated show for the network.

A fledgling unit of Discovery Communications, the Silver Spring broadcasting empire, Discovery Films (formed in 2004) has high hopes for "Kalahari" -- produced with Oxford Scientific Films in the United Kingdom -- but will wait to gauge the documentary's theatrical success before producing or acquiring more wildlife fare.

"We have a broader swath than National Geographic," says Discovery Studios President W. Clark Bunting, whose outfit has produced nine documentaries, including "With All Deliberate Speed," about the Brown v. Board of Education decision, and "Grizzly Man," Werner Herzog's film about the late bear activist Timothy Treadwell. As for wildlife documentaries, he adds, "it's not easy to find those projects. It takes a long time to film them. They're filmed under harsh conditions. We don't do these in closed soundstages in Burbank."

National Geographic Films (which started up in 2000) and Discovery Films have reason to be optimistic, according to industry analyst Wade Holden: "There is a compelling argument to be made that documentaries like 'March of the Penguins' that create a dramatic story arc can be successful at the box office." Of the 275 documentaries released from 2002 through 2006, he says, only eight were wildlife documentaries. But their combined gross of $163.1 million was a healthy 26 percent of the $631 million total gross, "showing that it is an important sub-genre."

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Credit Adam Leipzig, president of National Geographic Films, with turning that sub-genre into box office gold -- at least by documentary standards. When he watched the original, French-language version of "Penguins" in 2005, Leipzig immediately saw an opportunity to "reinvent a genre for an audience -- wildlife adventures which document the animals as they actually live, made by the foremost photographers and directors who have committed their lives to exploring these creatures, and made in a way that was entertaining, powerful and emotional."

In collaboration with Warner Independent Pictures, Leipzig snapped up the U.S. distribution rights for $1 million, then retrofitted the documentary for the American market, adding Morgan Freeman's voice-of-God commentary, plus a classical music score. The makeover, which cost a modest $600,000, according to Variety, turned "Penguins" into the second-highest-grossing documentary of all time -- behind Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11."

Now Leipzig has unveiled "Arctic Tale," 15 years in the making, which follows the comings of age of Seela, a walrus pup, and Nanu, a polar bear cub, as global warming threatens to melt the ice from under them. A depressing subtext, for sure. But the movie, co-directed by Sarah Robertson and Adam Ravetch and featuring off-screen commentary from Queen Latifah, out-fuzzes "Penguins" with its paw-licking bears and mustache-twitching walruses. (And there's a kid-pleasing flatulence scene to rival the infamous campfire sequence in "Blazing Saddles.") Judging by the dewy-eyed, sniffly reactions to the movie at a recent screening, the story line will connect with many audience members.

"I don't call it a documentary," says Leipzig. "I call it a 'wildlife adventure,' because this is a movie you go to because it's fun and entertaining, not because it's, quote, good for you."

As Leipzig readily acknowledges, this new brand of storytelling has longstanding precedent. Disney (where Leipzig worked for some time) has been making anthropomorphic animated and live-action features for generations. For 1989's "Milo & Otis," Columbia Pictures turned a Japanese nature movie about a cat and dog into an American hit with new music and narration from Dudley Moore. And the late "Crocodile Hunter" naturalist-showman Steve Irwin, whose programs were a cult hit on Discovery's Animal Planet, changed the way people perceive wildlife shows in general.

"I think of our new genre," says Leipzig, who oversaw "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" and "Dead Poets Society" as a Disney executive, "as reinventing both the documentaries and the adventure movies of the past."

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This reinvention brings with it some intriguing artistic -- and ethical -- challenges, as the films try to walk the line between documentary integrity and fictionalized drama. In other words (arguably), between harsh reality and entertaining cheese.

Leipzig and Bunting are happy to address the issue. "The audience gets a really deep connection with the characters of the animals," Leipzig says of "Arctic Tale." He notes that Latifah is a "storyteller" rather than a narrator. "And Queen Latifah is wise, funny and earthy, with a contemporary sense of humor and perspective. She's not some third person behind a wall of glass, removed from the experiences of the creatures." Regarding the audience-friendly qualities in "Kalahari," Bunting allows that the meerkats "have names, as they do in the series, but everything they do is based on natural-history behavior."

Then there are the filmmakers who spent a decade and a half in the Frozen North shooting "Arctic Tale" (they live on Vancouver Island). Leipzig recruited Robertson (who made the film with her husband, cinematographer and co-director Ravetch), Robertson thinks, because she'd made several documentaries for National Geographic Television that had employed the animal-point-of-view concept he was seeking.

In short order, Robertson found herself negotiating between her old-school documentary skills and the new demands for big-screen entertainment.

All parties -- Robertson, Ravetch, National Geographic Films and Paramount Classics -- agreed that the film needed to de-emphasize the animals' need to kill for food, a necessary activity for polars and walruses in the wilds, but a little too much for G-rated audiences.

"Certainly in documentary television, you see a lot more predation, a lot more red snow," says Robertson. "But we had to consider that on the big screen, that can be very graphic as well, so we purposely stayed away from that. But it was really important for us to show that animals get eaten, that it's part of what goes on. We didn't want to pretend it doesn't happen."

The result: "Arctic" shows one red-snow scene, but at a distance.

When Paramount Classics asked Robertson to include recognizable hits such as "We Are Family" and "Celebration" on the soundtrack, however, she was less agreeable. "They wanted audiences to recognize songs. . . . We wanted acoustic songs."

(Ultimately, "Family" stayed and "Celebration" took an electric slide.)

"They were respectful of our knowledge and passion for the place," says Robertson.

Also, in postproduction, Paramount Classics executives wanted to use a young A-list actor for the movie's storyteller -- the better to reach the youthful target audience, but Robertson insisted on a female, because "to me, it's a maternal story."

She got her way, but after they tried various candidates, "we found that with the young storytellers, you just didn't believe them. They had wispy, feminine voices. They just could not carry the depth and gravitas of the place, the epic-ness of it. So I said we need a low alto voice, we need an older woman, we need a wise, mother ice woman."

Hence the Queen Latifah casting. But when the studio hired television comedy writer Kristin Gore (who has written for "Saturday Night Live" and "Futurama" and is Al Gore's daughter) to create some contemporary chatter for their new storyteller, Robertson was unhappy with the material.

"There was this idea to write lines for Latifah and how she would speak, which I had a lot of problems with. I said, 'I think that's wrong, to have street talk.' We tried a little bit of that but we got rid of almost all of it. It wasn't appropriate."

But in the end, she declares herself to be fully satisfied with the result.

"We spent 15 years in the Arctic watching these animals, and discovering brand-new things about them that no one had ever known or seen," she says, "living with them in their space, seeing them make new decisions, seeing them respond to climate change, up close and personal, and in the here and now. 'Arctic' really brought to the forefront the celebration and admiration that we had for these animals."

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So, lots of feel-good animal fun in the room. But what about the bottom line: Does Paramount Classics expect to see big box office on the back of "Arctic Tale"? What does the future hold for the fuzzumentary?

"By no means are we expecting 'March of the Penguins' numbers," says Megan Colligan, marketing president for Paramount Classics, which also distributed the Al Gore eco-documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth." But as a company, "it's important for us to put our money where our mouth is. We feel it's important people feel that just by going to the movie, they've done something. They've taken a step in the right direction." (Following the model they used for "An Inconvenient Truth," Paramount Classics is earmarking 5 percent of the movie's gross for a fund to benefit four pro-wildlife organizations.)

Weil of National Geographic Films puts it this way: "There's no shame in profit," he says. "We want to be wildly profitable, which is not exclusive from being mission-driven. Everything we do is tied to who we are. Authenticity and veracity and substance are really important to us."

The film unit has already made or acquired documentaries in other genres. Among their films: "God Grew Tired of Us," a 2006 documentary about three Sudanese refugees, and, for release later this year, Michael Apted's soccer documentary, "The Power of the Game." And it plans to continue producing and acquiring these projects at the approximate rate of four to six a year.

Both National Geographic and Discovery see filmgoers as having a strong appetite for wildlife films now as a reaction to what else Hollywood is churning out, and as more attention is paid to environmental concerns.

"As far as cinema audiences go, there is a massive hunger for authenticity," Leipzig says. "All of the big family films are computer generated to death. . . . What we really don't get is anything that's authentic, genuine and true." Leipzig says the culture at large cares more about "the planet, the world in which we live, and [has] a deep need to understand what's going in the environment, and other sub-societies and cultures. These are all attributes of what National Geographic has been doing for 120 years."

So, in effect, the fuzzfest is retro cool?

"Wouldn't that be nice?" says Leipzig. "Wouldn't that be lovely?"

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